Refugee supporters march on Villawood

By Kerry Vernon

 

More than 200 people marched to Villawood Detention Centre from Chester Hill station in Sydney’s west on April 25 to protest the treatment of refugees and call for an end to Labor’s mandatory detention, deportations and offshore processing regime. The rally, organised by the Refugee Action Coalition, was part of a national Easter refugee rights convergence at Australia’s immigration detention centres.

 

On April 20, some detainees held a small protest in Stage 3, which was surrounded by Serco guards. A larger protest then ensued in the compound. Fires were lit that engulfed some buildings in Stage 3. Serco guards withdrew from the compound, and nine buildings were eventually gutted by fire. At the same time 13 Kurdish, Iranian and Afghan detainees staged a rooftop protest. They had already been held in immigration detention from 13 to 20 months, according to Ian Rintoul, in an April 20 RAC media report.

 

“The asylum seekers have told us that they are protesting because they have been in detention too long”, said Ian Rintoul.

 

“We get no answers”, rooftop protesters told the RAC. “Everybody is worried what is happening to them. We need freedom, not detention.” The organisers of the Villawood march said that the fire was nothing compared to the treatment of refugees at the centre. There were still three protesters on the roof of Villawood, said an April 27 ABC news report.

 

Labor cover-up

Labor’s Wayne Swan, acting prime minister, said that the Villawood rally was “inappropriate” on Anzac Day. Labor would prefer that its support for the imperialist war in Afghanistan and the undemocratic corrupt regime of Hamid Karzai escape criticism of the resulting devastation, displacement, civilian deaths and tide of refugees the war has caused.

 

Civil liberty groups have complained to the Human Rights Commission about the 22 asylum seekers alleged to have been involved in the Villawood riot being taken to and held without charge at Sydney’s Silverwater maximum-security prison. “They’re in a very fragile state of mind ... they’re fearful about what’s happening to them”, New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties secretary Stephen Blanks said.

 

“They haven’t been told why they’ve been taken to Silverwater ... they haven’t been charged ... they haven’t been interviewed. They don’t know how long they’re going to be there and what’s going to happen to them.”

 

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said that their imprisonment is permitted under the Migration Act. Bowen said he would seek a change to the Migration Act that would deny permanent visas to refugees in detention if they were found guilty of a crime. In a rerun of the racist Howard years, a temporary visa is being considered that will have two classes: “A temporary visa which says either A: we will return you when we can, or B: if you become a good community resident, a good resident of Australia and you have a good behaviour track record over a period of time then we will consider other arrangements for you”, Bowen said.

 

Lack of training

In an April 22 ABC Lateline report, an ex-guard at Villawood blamed Serco and its poor staff training for the Villawood riot. Eleven Serco staff were rostered on the night of the riot, the guard said. “From what I've seen, new recruits are basically put on the floor with no training whatsoever”, he said.

 

“They were told that they would be trained as they worked, and that also has never happened before. Basically what is supposed to happen is, they go through at least a six-week minimum course and then have a year of on-the-job training. Serco basically got rid of the six-week course using staffing levels as an excuse and basically threw the staff onto the floor and expected experienced staff to train them as well as do their normal jobs.”

 

He says Serco has never emphasised emergency response training for incidents like fire or riots.

 

On April 24, Greens MP Adam Bandt said the Greens will not withdraw support for the government over its handling of detention centre riots.

 

The Greens say delays and lengthy detention have pushed asylum seekers to breaking point. Bandt says his party is pushing for time limits on mandatory detention, “which is to have people processed here on shore, have time limits on detention of 30 days, so that that gives enough time for security and health checks, and if the authorities want to have people kept past 30 days then that should be done subject to judicial review”.

 

But Greens Leader Bob Brown said the Greens may have to wait until they have more MPs if they can’t change Labor’s refugee policy. This will prolong the misery of mandatory detention and lead to more repression of asylum seekers as the Labor Party seeks both to hose down criticism and continue implementing racist refugee policies.